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Cathal Brugha

Fergus O'Farrell
UCD Press
Extract from Chapter 5:

1920:‘The Man with the Quare Name’

Brugha moved in the shadows in 1920. Little documentary evidence pertaining to him survives, though it is unlikely that much ever existed. He was always extremely cautious about committing anything incriminating to paper. As a Minister, he only addressed the Dáil on military matters seven times, and only twice was information included on the Dáil record. He attended cabinet meetings, though his reports were almost always oral; written evidence is fragmentary. He moved about various safe houses, sometimes disguised as a Protestant clergyman, and was always armed. Unlike many rebel leaders, he evaded capture throughout the war. The Assistant Under Secretary Alfred Cope was unsure as to who exactly Brugha was, referring to him in July 1921 as ‘the man with the quare name.’ The British security dossier on Brugha is remarkably sparse, and their information on him prior to the truce is almost non-existent. Notwithstanding this confusion, there was a warrant for his arrest and he had the handsome price of £5,000 on his head.

He was constantly on the run. In the early hours of a Sunday morning in October 1920, Brugha’s home at Fitzwilliam Terrace was raided. The army brought a bloodhound with them in an effort to sniff out their quarry, but only succeeded in terrifying the maid while Mrs Brugha sat in an armoured car outside. 150 soldiers careered around the street with the dog, kicking in doors and terrorising Brugha’s mainly unionist neighbours. Brugha ran his ministry from Lalor’s Ltd, the candle-making enterprise which he co-founded in 1909 and operated from 14 Lower Ormond Quay. He had previously worked for the church suppliers, Hayes and Finch, as a travelling salesman, but resigned because of his misgivings about working for an English-owned company. According to Tomás Ó Dochartaigh, Brugha employed some IRA men at Lalor’s who knew nothing about the trade. Brugha’s second floor office had a mirror pointed at the stairs so he could see who was ascending. He had a narrow ladder which led to the roof, so he could escape in case of a raid. When it was sunny, he took his work to the roof.

Some contemporaries – and indeed historians – have cast Brugha as a part-time minister because he kept working at his candle-making firm throughout the War of Independence. Arthur Mitchell has suggested that both Brugha and J. J. O’Kelly (Minister for National Language since November 1919) forwent payment as it was in keeping with the principles of the Gaelic League, of which they were both prominent members. Some recalled that he was often hard to find when he was needed, though others report that he was readily available at his office above Lalor’s. However, his commitment to the separatist movement is unquestionable: he was a committed republican and never shirked physical danger during the revolution, despite the fact that he had a young family. It should be noted that Arthur Griffith, the prolific journalist, who could produce newsprint with ‘manic industry’, also continued to work right through revolution, but the same questions regarding his diligence have not been raised.

During 1920, the IRA stepped up their campaign as the leadership approved attacks on police and barracks in January. Meanwhile, Brugha and Collins sought to extend the campaign beyond Ireland’s borders and wanted to establish ‘foreign service flying columns.’ In November, they sent IRA man Seán McLaughlin to Britain where he infiltrated left-wing movements, sourced arms, conspired with Indian nationalists and generally sowed discontent. Rory O’Connor travelled to Britain to coordinate operations there, and in November the IRA announced the beginning of the campaign on British soil by burning the Liverpool docks.

Dáil Authority and Oath

In September 1919, the Dáil agreed that the IRA should swear an oath of allegiance to the legislature. According to Florence O’Donoghue, the oath was ‘administered to Volunteers at public parades of companies or smaller units during the Autumn of 1920.’ This was a qualified success for Brugha – he had finally brought the IRA under the nominal authority of the Dáil. In reality though, the IRA remained an army which was driven by local commanders and was not closely controlled by GHQ , let alone Dáil Éireann. Later in the year, Brugha sought to reorganise the army, revamp the command structure and introduce payment for officers. These measures were undertaken to enforce better discipline among the troops, but also to assert his, and the Dáil’s, authority over the IRA.

In March, Brugha again returned to his cabinet assassination scheme. Three Cork-based IRA Volunteers were summoned to Vaughan’s Hotel, a hub of revolutionary planning, where they met with Collins and Brugha. Collins joked with the men and bought them a drink. ‘Brugha’, recalled one of them, ‘spoke in an austere manner and emphasised the dangers and trials with which we might have to contend.’ Brugha oversaw the military planning and Collins took care of the finances. This may be a reason why some have questioned his commitment to his ministerial duties. One Cork commander recalled that he only received one com - muni cation from Brugha throughout the whole war. The exception to this seems to be the cabinet assassination plan. In 1918, 1920 and 1920, Brugha personally planned and organised assassination attempts. On this occasion, the plan was postponed when it seemed likely that the British were offering the prospect of negotiations.

In May 1919, Harry Boland arrived in America as an envoy of both Dáil Éireann and the IRB. Upon de Valera’s arrival the following month, Boland acted as the travelling president’s ‘private secretary, tour organiser, bagman, political adviser, butler, and personal entertainer.’ The multifarious Boland was also an enthusiastic, though inept, arms smuggler. The gun-running operation was ostensibly under the authority of the Minister for Defence, though in reality it was conducted through the IRB and their American contacts. On 11 August, Boland wrote to Brugha from the American capital to inform the Minister that he had received quotations for weapons and could secure transport ‘if ye [sic] are prepared to accept delivery’ while also assuring him that ‘we have not forgotten your views in certain contingences for a world action.’ Boland’s biographer, David Fitzpatrick, a historian who is well acquainted with Boland’s quirky coded letters and enigmatic messages, has suggested that Brugha was awaiting a decision from de Valera regarding the British cabinet assassination scheme. It is not clear if de Valera sanctioned the plan before it was eventually shelved.

Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, was one of the deadliest days of the war, with a catalogue of killings punctuating the day. At 9 am, members of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, accompanied by IRA intelligence officers and the men of Michael Collins’ squad, entered the private residences and boarding houses where several alleged members of the British intelligence network were staying. Fourteen men (including two auxiliary policemen who interrupted the raid on Mount Street) were shot dead. A fifteenth man died later of the wounds he sustained that morning. That afternoon, police, army and auxiliaries raided Croke Park during a football match, where they killed at least 12 civilians. In the evening, two senior Dublin IRA commanders, Peadar Clancy and Dick McKee, and a civilian, Conor Clune, were shot in Dublin Castle, where they had been imprisoned since the previous night.

Bloody Sunday reveals interesting insights into Brugha’s attitudes to violence. He seems to have agreed with the mission in principle, though he did remove some names from the hit list on the grounds that he believed that there was not sufficient evidence against them. According to Ernie O’Malley, Brugha ‘was very conscientious and adamant in his judgement. If to his mind there was the slightest loophole for uncertainty about an agent or spy, then the individual could not be dealt with.’ Notwithstanding his vetting of the victims, at least one was innocent, having only come to Dublin to trade horses. While Brugha could often display deep concern that individuals were targeted when they should not have been, he could equally exhibit an almost total disregard for his own life.

Following the morning’s operations, Mulcahy and Brugha were holed up in a safe house together near Mountjoy Square. Mulcahy recalled Brugha’s reaction to hearing soldiers outside:
What does Cathal do but went [sic] up to his room, pulled up the window, pulled over a chair alongside it, pulled out two revolvers and put them on the bed beside him, and took off his boots! . . . Now, my tactics would have been entirely different. I would have [had] my bicycle out and been out of the gate at the back, and I would have been off up Drumcondra; but, noblesse oblige, I had to sit alongside my minister on the side of the bed there, praying whatever was going to pass.
Brugha then moved his hiding place up the road, to the grounds of Temple Street Hospital, where a caretaker happened upon him, sitting at a table in an outhouse, again with his two revolvers. He informed Brugha that the area was surrounded by soldiers, to which Brugha responded, ‘If those people come in, you will find my dead body . . . and don’t be surprised to find six or seven of the bodies of our visitors.’

The erroneous assertion that Brugha had little time for politics is often presented alongside his apparent strong commitment to physical force, as if the former proves the latter. However, he had complex and well-thought-out attitudes to violence, and was not simplistically bloodthirsty. He expressed regret that war was necessary to secure British withdrawal, and it is clear that he had reflected on the legitimacy of violence and where that violence should be directed. He detested civilian casualties and had been slow to sanction IRA attacks on non-military targets, including police and intelligence personnel. He would not allow the execution of women spies. The IRB’s raison d’être was to wage war to secure an Irish republic, though Brugha was opposed to it because it was an unelected secret society. He believed that politicians were ultimately responsible for the actions of the army. He returned to his cabinet assassination scheme throughout the war because it was the cabinet who were the ultimate arbiters of political violence in Ireland. It was this idea of political responsibility which, in part, informed his efforts to cement IRA allegiance to the Dáil. Brugha believed in the primacy of the Dáil and the importance of politics. By combining politics with insurrection, he believed that Ireland could win its independence.

Notwithstanding these qualifications of Brugha’s bellicosity, if the circumstance warranted it, he had no issue with taking up arms himself. At times, his actions bordered on the suicidal. During the Rising, his body riddled with shrapnel and bullets, he propped himself against a wall, shouting, ‘Come on, you cowards, till I get one shot before I die. I am only a wounded man’. If he had opened fire in the House of Commons viewing gallery in 1918, he certainly would have been killed, as he admitted himself, though he also defiantly believed that he ‘would do one of them anyway.’ The Bloody Sunday vignettes reveal a detached, calm Brugha, contemplatively waiting for soldiers to burst through the door and shoot him up. He never considered surrender; if his enemies wanted to capture him, they would have to kill him first. This was reminiscent of Ceannt’s last letter to republicans to ‘never treat with the enemy’. His absolute refusal to countenance surrender was another aspect of his deep-seated obstinacy. Intransigence was his hamartia: it obstructed his politics, damaged his working relationships with both military and political leaders and ultimately led to his bloody demise during the Civil War.

The Brugha-Collins Conflict

During de Valera’s American sojourn, Griffith acted as President until he was arrested in the wake of Bloody Sunday. Griffith nominated Brugha as his successor, though Brugha demurred because of workload pressures in the Department of Defence, and so the role went to Collins, who only held the post for two weeks until de Valera returned to Ireland on 23 December. During his 18-month absence, much had changed. The war had intensified, the Dáil had been driven underground and tensions were brewing between key rebel leaders. On the night of his return, de Valera met Brugha at a house on Dublin’s Merrion Square. De Valera chided Brugha for carrying a Mauser pistol on him, telling his minister that if he ‘were held up for examination in the street the gun would be found on him or he would be compelled to use it under very disadvantageous circumstances.’ Brugha would not be persuaded, and replied that he ‘intended to use the gun if there was any question of his being held up.’

It was at this meeting that de Valera first became aware of the growing rift between Brugha and Collins. Their differences arose, according to de Valera, from Brugha seeking to bring the IRA under the authority of the Dáil and Brugha’s distrust of the IRB, wherein Collins was president of its Supreme Council. Brugha was glad of de Valera’s return, for he feared ‘otherwise there would be a split from top to bottom.’ The President, however, ‘did not regard the difference between Brugha and Collins as being of a dangerous character, and proceeded to ignore them.’

Tension had been simmering between the two men since at least August 1919 when Brugha successfully secured Dáil approval for an IRA oath. Brugha had left the IRB after 1916, wishing instead that the IRA become an open military movement. Collins and Mulcahy believed that a strategy of guerrilla warfare and assassination were more effective. They were correct in this summation: it was inconceivable that the IRA could have combated the British army as effectively as they did if they had done so conventionally.

Like many politicians, both Brugha and Collins possessed strong personalities; these personalities did not complement each other. Collins was a young man from a rural background and was gregarious and boisterous. Brugha was a middle-class Dublin man, 16 years older and struck his contemporaries as austere, stoic and laconic. Brugha was an abstainer, having quit drinking in 1917 because of his displeasure at contributing to Her Majesty’s Treasury through taxation on alcohol. Neither did he smoke or swear. Collins was a veritable expert at all three. Brugha was a devout Catholic, while Collins ‘was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.’ Some people recalled Brugha as polite and gentle, while others remarked on his cold and aloof manner. Collins seemed to possess an uncanny ability to make friends and inspire loyalty. Brugha’s steely stubbornness meant that once he had made his mind up on Collins, it was highly unlikely that he would change it. According to Béaslaí, ‘on every issue he [Brugha] made up his mind on a small number of data, and crystallised them into a formula, and all subsequent attempts to put before him fresh data or considerations he had ignored were only a waste of time.’

The two men also clashed over power. As Minister for Defence, Brugha was constantly striving to assert his ministerial control over the IRA, while Collins used his IRB connection to exert his authority of the military. ‘These confused relationships between institutions encouraged the emergence of contending and charismatic leaders. Sinn Féin, the Volunteers and the IRB provided powerbases for ambitious men.’

Mulcahy, who was an ally of Collins and would himself later fall foul of Brugha, believed that the fractious power struggle had come about because of the confusing nature of the IRB relation - ship to both the Dáil and the IRA. Collins ‘had surrounded himself, in the IRB tradition, with groups of men who accepted his leadership totally and his word as law in a kind of charismatic union.’ But Mulcahy also attributed a more human quality to Brugha’s antipathy towards Collins, claiming that de Valera had said to him: ‘do you know I think that Cathal is jealous of Mick . . . Isn’t it a terrible thing that a man with the qualities that Cathal undoubtedly has, so should fall a victim to a dirty little vice like jealously.’ Mulcahy agreed with this assessment. De Valera’s own archive does not record that this was his point of view. Patrick Murray has shown that de Valera policed his archive to present a certain image of himself to historians, but also that de Valera and Mulcahy could have radically different interpretations of the revolution. This allusion to jealousy has crept into the historiography. It is undeniable that Brugha harboured a growing animosity towards Collins, which eventually exploded into a personal attack during the fractious Treaty debates. However, the antipathy was borne of a personality clash and was amplified by a power struggle.

1920 was a violent year: the forces of the crown lost 525 men and almost 1,000 were wounded. The authorities recognised the effectiveness of the IRA and there were whisperings of settlement talks towards the end of the year. Brugha had moved closer to asserting his and the government’s authority over the army when the oath was administered in the autumn. But the year was not a total success for Brugha: his relationship with Collins deteriorated and, before long, he would also fall out with Mulcahy.